Snowden's Choice -- and Ours

The march from Selma to Montgomery
Black Panther Fred Hampton
By Nathan Paulsen
June, 2013

En español

Nathan Paulsen situates the NSA revelations in the long and sordid history of U.S. government surveillance and likewise puts the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act in context, closing with the challenge this poses to those who abhor injustice.      

When Edward Snowden took responsibility for media leaks that revealed National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs, I was viscerally moved. A rare moment of pride in my U.S. citizenship tingled down my spine. In exercising his freedom of speech to blow the whistle on government spying, Snowden acted in the best of our democratic traditions. Awed by the courage of a man willing to impoverish himself and risk years in prison for the common good, I felt challenged by his example.

Not that I have half the daring of Mr. Snowden.

But I do experience, I think, a similar disgust. 

It is not the sort of disgust one might encounter when tasting a particularly unpleasant food. Or, say, coming across a maggot-filled squirrel on the side of the road. It's not a distaste for small discomforts, but a repugnance reserved for the great injustice in our world.  

Poverty amid riches. Health disparities that waste tens of thousands of lives.  The scourge of domestic violence and rape. Official negligence and half measures as climate crisis devastates the planet. Hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan for an imperial project intended to pillage strategic petroleum reserves. Segregated cities where human beings murder one another in competition for scarce resources and glimmers of power. Hundreds of billions spent annually outfitting military personnel with weapons to wage war on a global humanity living on a couple dollars a day. Unconstitutional policing that interferes with freedom of speech and assembly. 

I have never adapted to these realities.

Apparently Snowden hasn't either.

SWORN TO PROTECT AN UNJUST STATUS QUO

"[The National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide." --Senator Frank Church, 1975

I had the good luck of studying history. Not just any history but history as told from the perspective of oppressed people. History of the experiences of prior generations whose struggles ended wars and brought us emancipation from slavery, suffrage, labor unions, civil rights, rape shield laws and the like.

The story of NSA surveillance called to mind some lessons about government eavesdropping from our recent past.

Think COINTELPRO. Or MHCHAOS. Projects MERRIMAC, RESISTANCE, MINARET, SHAMROCK, and MKUltra.

Not that any of these acronyms will be spoken aloud by the power elite or media outlets dominated by a handful of mega conglomerates. Despite the current news prominence of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, you will not hear about the mid-1970s Church Committee reports that made their enactment a political necessity.

The more relevant a subject is to an informed public discourse the less likely it is to be broached. 

Which leaves us with a chilling blind spot in our democratic narrative.  That blind spot erases our collective memory of hundreds of thousands of trouble-makers – together with the organizations they participated in - targeted for surveillance by intelligence agencies during the cycle of protest that ended in the 1970s.

Surveillance was only the beginning. The information gathered from spying was actively used in a coordinated campaign to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralizethe political activities of citizens inclined to exercise their constitutional rights. To achieve their goal, intelligence agencies employed widespread psychological warfare and police harassment, as well as imprisonment and assassination of leading activists.    

The federal government – together with state and local police forces – cast a wide net.  Civil Rights workers struggling to end Jim Crow. Pacifists opposed to the war in Vietnam. Feminists fighting for domestic violence shelters. American Indians raising awareness of treaty betrayals and poor social conditions. Black liberation organizers seeking economic fairness and a voice in the decisions impacting their communities. Chicanos aiming to empower Mexican Americans. Environmentalists campaigning for clean water and air. Workers pursuing a fair wage. Journalists and academics with contrary opinions. Popular artists like John Lennon.   

The Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Edward Sullivan, testified before Congress: “No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business”.

This history brings to light the systemic pattern that underlies the NSA power grab – and how it impacts everyone who desires some kind of change. Acting to change oppressive dynamics is always considered threatening by oppressors whose social position depends on those very dynamics. Hence every social gain made by oppressed communities has been met with fierce resistance from the powers-that-be, including the use of intelligence agencies to silence critics and preserve the status quo.   

This is the backdrop to Snowden's courageous disclosure of extensive, almost omnipresent, NSA snooping into the phone and internet communications of U.S. citizens. (The gory details are here and here). Not to mention his expose of Washington hypocrisy in the international arena as the NSA conducted sophisticated hacking operations on all manner of targets abroad. 

And the NSA is just one of at least 15 separate intelligence agencies in Washington. Total funding for these agencies in 2012 was some $75 billion. (Confirming the rule that the greater the injustice the more resources are needed to hold back the tide of voices calling for change.)  In that vein the Obama administration - having prosecuted twice as many whistle blowers as all other President’s combined and imprisoned the man who whistle blew on Central Intelligence Agency torture - now has Snowden in its crosshairs.

That is, if they can catch him.

The limits of U.S. global power has (yet again) been spotlighted as Hong Kong, and now Russia, have defied administration pleas to extradite Snowden back to the U.S. for prosecution. Indeed, the bipartisan resolve to treat Mr. Snowden as a traitor – for divulging to the public that all of us are being spied upon - has had the unintended consequence of turning him into a hero in modern day outlaw mold. 

(I understand some are reluctant to grant him the honor. I myself have no qualms as my hero’s need not be perfect and are allowed mixed motivations. They are also permitted to flee for their lives to whichever countries they choose.)

Unless you are unable to ever imagine a time where you might dissent from government policies or corporate power – and I know there are those among us who cannot – you have a stake in what happens next.     

WHO BENEFITS FROM RESTRICTING THE VOTE?  

While Washington focuses our ire on foreign adversaries and uses them as cover to infringe on our civil liberties, I would venture to guess most of us fear great injustice far more than isolated acts of terrorism.

And for good reason: Whereas discrete moments of headline grabbing violence are terrible for the pain they inflict on innocent civilians, systemic power imbalances hurt millions of people every day. With considerable luck and ingenuity, al-Qaeda might be able to destroy a symbolic target and kill or maim a few thousand people in the process. Banking executives, on the other hand, have unfairly evicted millions of people from their homes. Or consider that more than twice as many Black men born after the mid-1960s go to prison than graduate from college.

You can be segregated in impoverished neighborhoods. Or unemployed. Or lose your home. Or get sick without health insurance. Or spend years in prison for possession of a substance.

Or you can be disenfranchised.

The Supreme Court decision to strike down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has truly massive implications. Prior to passage of this historic legislation a huge majority of Blacks in Southern states had been effectively barred from voting. Individual legal suits to redress the wrong were to no avail as local officials would continually evolve discriminatory voting laws – such as literacy tests - to stay one step ahead of the courts.  

The old Jim Crow elite were determined to stay on top. And as Blacks gained power through collective action they faced increasingly brutal repression. In the winter of 1965, unarmed civil rights protestor Jimmie Jackson was killed by an Alabama state trooper. Inspired by his martyrdom hundreds went on the march from Selma to Montgomery for human dignity and voting rights. In what came to be called Bloody Sunday, demonstrators were left reeling from police baton and tear gas attacks. More and more joined the marches in solidarity – thousands then tens of thousands - until the tide of humanity was too great to hold back

After years of patient organizing and public protest the Civil Rights Movement triumphed. Within months of the Selma to Montgomery marches Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Jim Crow was shattered. Today Blacks participate in elections at nearly the same rate as whites in areas affected by the legislation. 

The Supreme Court decision rendered earlier this month rolls back the tide of progress. To safeguard racial equity in voting, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act forced nine mostly Southern states and a wider number of local jurisdictions around the country to pre-clear changes to election laws with the Department of Justice (DOJ). In 2012, two states had legislation blocked and a third significantly altered to prevent discriminatory changes from going into effect.

Hours after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that his state would immediately enforce the Voter ID law which had been stopped by the DOJ. Abbott's move is a harbinger of things to come. A significant section of the power elite was never on board with civil rights in the first place. They are now emboldened by the Court’s decision. Second, capital is launching aggressive assaults on the livings standards of working people and requires our absence from politics to succeed. Restrictive voting policies further their interests.

Without a groundswell of grassroots organization that creates an independent progressive pole in U.S. politics, millions of poor and people of color will be vulnerable to increased constraints on their ability to vote in the years ahead.       

THE HARD WORK OF MAKING JUSTICE

Part of the "greatness" of great injustice is in its tendency to overwhelm our capacity to respond. This is no ordinary bit of unfairness between neighbors easily resolved with a conversation and handshake. Confronted with the enormity of the task – justice-making in a situation of structural oppression – the path of least resistance for many of us, myself included, is to sink helplessly into our private worlds.

That is not an option I care any longer to entertain. 

I am too much revolted by what I have witnessed.

Can you imagine where we would be if nobody was willing to take a stand for justice? If white supremacists and patriarchs and corporate executives and military generals had a blank check to determine our collective fates? 

We would have neither the Voting Rights Act for the Supreme Court to strike down nor gay marriage on the public agenda for the Court to uphold

In this way great injustice presses each of us to search our souls and challenges us with a question:

What will you risk for the sake of righting these wrongs?

Most of us will never face stark choices like those faced by Mr. Snowden or civil rights workers in the Deep South. All of us will be called to step outside our comfort zones. The risk we might offer can be as simple as attending a street demonstration or spending a few hours volunteering with a social movement organization.

Or it might be as complicated as letting go of a carefully cultivated resignation to the way things are.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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